Diogenes searches for answers from Google

"Don't Fund Evil" protest at Google's NYC Moto X Launch Party (Photo: @ForcastFacts

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"Don't Fund Evil" protest at Google's NYC Moto X Launch Party (Photo: @ForcastFacts
“Don’t Fund Evil” protest sign outside Google’s NYC Moto X Launch Party (Photo: @ForcastFacts)

By legend, the ancient Greek philosopher Diogenes strolled the streets of Athens in daylight, holding a lamp. When asked what he was doing, he’d reply, “I’m looking for an honest man.” Meanwhile, scientists continue to reel from Google’s July fundraiser for prominent climate denier James Inhofe (R-OK), and consumers are left to find their own ways to express disapproval for Google’s decision.

Google’s public support for Senator Inhofe, who has spent the last decade denying the scientific understanding of climate change and blocking U.S. action — an issue on which Google has visibly occupied the pro-science side — was shocking to those who expect the search giant to stay true to its “Don’t be evil” unofficial motto. Or even to Google’s official mission, “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful,” a mission that would seem to have been conclusively thrown under the bus by Google taking AdWord profits to fund a prominent advocate of disinformation.

To make matters even more awkward, scientists from Google’s own Science Communication Fellowship wrote a blistering open letter to Google executives:

“For both economic and moral reasons, Google needs to stand on the right side of history and stop supporting those who are best known for attacking scientists, denying reality and obstructing government action.” – Open Letter from Google Science Fellows

Online environmental and climate networks sprang into action: over 150,000 people signed petitions urging Google to stop funding climate deniers and thousands shared #DontFundEvil on social media. Beyond clicktivism, protesters have gathered at Google’s headquarters in Mountain View & Washington DC, and most recently at Google’s Moto X Phone launch party in New York City.

This controversy presents an interesting nexus of social, political, and economic influence. With the 8th largest lobbying budget in the country, Google is in a unique position — almost a pivotal position — to accelerate or undermine social causes in the political process. Add in the tech lobbying group FWD.us, of which Facebook is part, and the giants of the web as a whole seem to be perilously balanced between corporate interests, shareholder interests, and political expediency, with the public interest a distant runner-up.

Public critiques and counter-campaigns have drawn attention to Google’s corporate slogan “Don’t be evil,” pointing out their hypocrisy and subverting the slogan with the protest rally: “Don’t fund evil.”

We recently wrote about Buycott, a handy app that displays any potentially conflicting interests before a consumer purchase. Though purchasing power can acts as a check on corporate behavior, it’s unclear how this latest public outrage will affect Google’s bottom line or market share.

For the activist consumer, check out these search engine alternatives:

  • Bing – leading seach engine alternative
  • DuckDuckGo – search engine with comparable results, and with an emphasis on user privacy
  • Blippex – uses “time on site” data to rank search results

For an even stronger message, simply go completely Google-less. It turns out (whoa!) it is possible. And, if they don’t reflect your interests (let’s say, a habitable planet) perhaps the best way to let them know is to drop them. The Guardian has experimented with replacing all Google products (browers, maps, email, etc). Check out their choice alternatives here.

This episode is a fascinating lesson in how business and politics can produce strange bedfellows. The leadership of Google must have expected the possibility of criticism by being associated with Inhofe, and yet appears indifferent to the charges of hypocrisy. Which presents the deeper question that Google’s actions have unintentionally posed: whether from a church, an oil well, or information, under capitalism as it is practiced in Silicon Valley, Wall Street, Tulsa and Washington, DC., is there value in any human activity beyond the money you make (or can leverage)?

In an interesting twist, one place for a modern Diogenes to contemplate that question will be the new hilly park at Governors Island, which will another lovely green feature to our coastal city. The Hills are made possible by the Schmidt Family Foundation — the philanthropic arm of Google’s CEO.